Many directors put something of themselves into a story, but Emanuele Crialese went a step further with his latest, drama L’immensita (The Immensity). The Italian filmmaker, who burst onto the scene with 2002’s Respira, used the film’s premiere in Venice to publicly come out as a Transgender Man, explaining the autobiographical nature of his story.
Set in Italy in the 1970s, the film follows the struggles of a dysfunctional family. The mother Clara (Penelope Cruz) suffers with mood swings and the stifling lifestyle imposed on her by husband (Vincenzo Amato). Their children are no happier, with eldest Adriana (Luana Giuliani) struggling with Gender Dysphoria and insisting on being called Andrea (a masculine name in Italy, equivalent to Andrew). During the course of a heated summer, all the family members simmer with their issues, heading slowly toward breaking point.
Like Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God or Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the story is more of a childhood snapshot than a linear plot. The audience is there to spend time with the characters, in ways that feel intimate and real. The cinematography is spectacular, capturing small moments like Cruz’s thoughtful drags on cigarettes, or metaphors like Andrea being literally separated from his identity by gendered school uniform. The issue of cisgendered actors playing trans roles is a complex one (Giuliani identifies as female), but Crialese’s perspective is felt through painful moments like Andrea keeping his body covered, or joyful times like a connection with a gypsy girl who sees him for who he is.
It’s a quiet, affecting performance from the young star, but Cruz is the main attraction. The Oscar winner always seems to find richer roles in European cinema, and plays Clara with a fierce defiance that is gripping at times. From the gentle connection she feels with Andrea, to the growing resentment she has for her marriage, she is a fascinating actor who packs emotion into an otherwise gentle film.
Like all memoirs of childhood, L’immensita wanders, seeking to fit the messiness of real life into cinematic form. However, Crialese leaves you feeling a real sense of knowing these characters, and in turn feeling closer to the struggles they represent.